Have you had panic attacks while flying? If so, do you know why?
Let me summarize.
Panic attacks are the result of the so-called ‘fight or flight response’ that’s hard-wired into your brain.
The purpose of the response is to SAVE you from things that suddenly present as an immediate threat to your life. Like a wild beast charging at you.
How ‘fight or flight’ works
Having spotted a clear and present danger, the response works by getting your brain to make an instant decision on whether to stand and fight. Or run.
To speed your decision-making, the choice of whether to fight or flee is made instantly by the UNCONSCIOUS part of your brain. That’s the same bit that automatically manages other processes like your heart rate, blood pressure and temperature.
In other words, you don’t CONSCIOUSLY decide.
Regardless of whether your brain decides to fight or flee, it instantly primes you for action. It does this by unleashing a surge of adrenaline which, in turn, immediately activates a series of frightening symptoms.
Your brain can misinterpret things
Although the response is triggered by something your brain interprets as a threat, sometimes your brain gets it WRONG. In other words, it sometimes views a safe situation as dangerous.
Panic attacks caused by flying fall into this category.
That’s because they’re caused by you having negative thoughts rather than by a real external threat. So how do negative thoughts make you panic?
The answer is simple. When you’re sat on a plane having negative thoughts, you obviously start feeling anxious.
And when you feel anxious, you can then become what psychologists call ‘hypervigilant’.
When you’re in a hypervigilant state of mind, you search obsessively for signs of danger. For example, you’ll be on the lookout for ‘odd’ sounds and sensations. And probably checking the faces of the crew to see if they look distressed.
And besides keeping an eye out for general threats, you may be furiously checking for specific ones, too. For example, if you worry about the wings snapping off, your eyes and ears will be wide open for anything that suggests that’s about to happen.
Needless to say, when you’re in this state of mind, your risk of having a panic attack goes through the roof. After all, with your brain URGENTLY hunting for danger, it’s just a negative thought away from hitting the ol’ panic button.
What makes you anxious?
So panic attacks are caused by hypervigilance. And hypervigilance is caused by anxiety. So what causes you to feel anxious in the first place?
Negative thoughts about flying. Duh.
But did you know that negative thoughts about flying come in two varieties? They are:
- A fear of mechanical or system failure.
- A fear of having a panic attack.
In both cases, your negative thoughts tend to be CATASTROPHIC. In other words, they focus on the most dreadful outcome imaginable.
Negative thoughts appear in two ways
Regardless of which category your anxieties fall into (and they can fall into both at the same time), negative thoughts can pop into your head in two ways.
- Active thinking.
- Automatic association.
‘Active thinking’ occurs when you deliberately think about something that makes you anxious. For example, whilst in mid-air, you start thinking about what you might experience if a wing suddenly snapped off.
Meanwhile, ‘automatic association’ happens when you spot something that doesn’t make you nervous – but it instantly reminds you of another thing that does. For example, as you enter a plane, the benign sight of the seats instantly makes you anxious because it reminds you that you’re about to fly.
Why you have negative thoughts
As a nervous flyer, there are several reasons why you’re susceptible to negative thoughts.
The first is that you CATASTROPHISE. In other words, your negative thoughts tend to assume the WORST possible outcome. That’s because you don’t challenge them effectively with facts.
Another thing that makes people vulnerable to anxiety-inducing thoughts is having elevated levels of background anxiety. In other words, being highly-strung in their day-to-day lives.
To understand how everything I’ve described works together, imagine this example.
You’re sat, rather anxiously, on a plane that’s mid-way through its journey. Unexpectedly, your aircraft hits some turbulence.
Instantly you worry that if it gets any worse, you could end up having a panic attack. The thought that a panic attack could be just around the corner makes you hypervigilant.
This hypervigilance has you looking for signs that you’re panicking. And it makes your heart rate shoot up while making you feel sweaty and trembly.
Your over-anxious brain reads these physical symptoms as proof that, indeed, you are about to have a panic attack.
Suddenly, a catastrophic thought races through your head screaming ‘I can’t cope with this situation’. The result?
You’re overwhelmed by a full-blown panic attack – one that is stoked by the dreadful realization that you can neither fight nor flee.
On that note, have you experienced a flight-related panic attack? If so, what happened? Leave something in the comments.
This is the second instalment in a series of posts about panic attacks.